Got privilege?

The phrase “white privilege” troubles many people. Often an instant response is, “I’m not privileged. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. Nobody gave me anything.” We equate “privilege” with wealth or entitlement or ease. That, of course, is the trouble with words – they fail to describe what we are attempting to define.

In this case, “privilege” is the ability to participate in an activity without hindrance.

Think of it this way.  What if we substitute the word “white” with another word.

Consider this –

  • My mother is blind. Ordinary daily activities are challenging, from choosing clothes to wear, to safely navigating crowded hallways, or pouring a cup of hot coffee.
  • I, on the other hand, can do things that sighted people do – use my phone, drive a car, find an item that I’ve put down, read the newspaper, or cross the street.
  • I don’t give a lot of thought to those activities because they come easily to me. Mostly, I forget just how blessed I am.
  • We could call it “visual privilege.”

Or how about this:

  • I can walk up and down stairs, squeeze through narrow hallways and doors, and traverse the length of a parking lot or superstore without giving it a thought.
  • My friend who uses a walker because of MS cannot do any of those things. My comfortable ability often makes me oblivious to the challenges she faces daily.
  • I enjoy what might be called “mobility privilege.”

In the same way, I can – without worry – drive through any neighborhood without being pulled over, walk into a store without being followed by a suspicious employee, and walk down the street without anyone challenging my right to be there.

The assumption that I will be treated with at least minimal respect – that is privilege.  It is something I do not particularly notice because it has always been my life experience. But it is something that not everyone enjoys.

Part of my responsibility as a white person is to wonder, explore, and learn about other people’s experiences. I need to notice things that just aren’t fair – like my brown-skinned son always being asked to show his ID when using a credit card while his white-skinned sister isn’t. When I see things like that, I need to speak up.

Perhaps the first step in combatting racism is being aware that it exists and is going on around me all the time. My obligation is to recognize that many aspects of my life are easier simply because of the color of my skin. I have a privilege I didn’t ask for or earn, but it is real. Being aware of that can inspire me to work on building a society that extends courtesy and respect to all of God’s children.

Discovering God’s people

God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”  Genesis 1:26

When I was a little girl my grandmother traveled around the world on a “tramp steamer.” This relatively inexpensive ship allowed her to spend months crisscrossing the globe while our family enjoyed her travels vicariously. We had a world map mounted on a hallway wall which helped us monitor her movements. Every time a postcard arrived, we would read it eagerly, marveling at the sights and sounds she was experiencing. Then we would carefully and somewhat ceremoniously place a pin in her current location. Soon colorful dots marked her journey from one hemisphere to another.

Every once in a while a package would arrive with a doll or other interesting artifact from her adventures.  This was the beginning of my doll collection; I still treasure the brightly colored costumes that represent the variety of cultures she experienced.

As a child, my goal in life was to be able to add to that collection myself. I looked forward to the day when I would be able to travel and discover new customs, foods, and cultures on my own. My first overseas trip was as a high school summer exchange student to Germany. That was enough to encourage me to travel whenever and wherever I could.  My college junior year abroad (in Germany, again) led to two additional years of living and working in Europe. When I went to seminary, international travel was encouraged so that we could broaden our horizons and our understanding of religions and cultures other than our own. That led to study trips to Costa Rica and Israel.

My dream was to pass my curiosity and love of learning on to my children. We traveled as a family to Bolivia to participate in home-building and education support.   My children have since ventured to places I have not (yet) experienced including Senegal, Japan, Wales, and Spain. I believe it has been a vital part of their education, giving them a broader perspective on the world and on themselves.

The only way to learn about one another – whether across the globe or in our own town – is to experience each other’s world. We need to talk with – and listen to – each other. We live in a nation divided by politics and opinions.  It is imperative that we wonder about each other, ask questions of one another, and carefully consider what the other person is saying.

One way to approach each other is with a holy curiosity. We can ponder – what is it like to be that person?  What has been their life experience? What has formed and shaped them? What do they believe and why?  What can I learn from them?

We will not agree with – or even like – everyone we meet. But if we approach people with the understanding that every one of us is created in the image of God, that might be a place to begin.

The March – my experience

My bad feet survived.

My spirit soared.

It was thrilling to gather on the Mall, looking at our Capitol, surrounded by a vast sea of humanity of every age, color, and description.  I was filled with gratitude for our country which allows and guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

The March was peaceful and it was powerful.

I never got close to the stage.  I couldn’t hear any of the speakers. But I didn’t need inspirational speeches to tell me about the need. I could hear that in the voices of those who surrounded me. Men and women, gay, straight, and trans.

Young and old.

Experienced marchers and novices.

All joined together to sing and chant their belief that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated with dignity.

I read their message in their signs – some poignant, some angry, many humorous – but all advocating human rights for all of God’s people.

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What was the point?  The point was to stand together.

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These days it is possible to communicate and cooperate across the globe on-line and through social media. But sometimes we need to get out of our homes – and our comfort zones – and come together.

Sometimes we need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with one another.

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I came back inspired and energized.

I came back realizing I am not alone in my concern about healthcare, the environment, the LGBT community, immigrants, and people of color.

I came back wanting to help save our planet from thoughtless abuse.

I came back determined to work hard on behalf of those who have no voice or are afraid.

I came back encouraged.

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I won’t give up.

And when I need to, I will march again.

Why I’m marching

I’m a 58-year-old straight white woman with bad feet.  Why am I going to the Women’s March in Washington DC on January 21st?

I’m marching because I want to be part of the conversation. Politicians are always talking. The news cycles are filled with people shouting past each other as they try to force their reality on one another.

There’s a lot of voices out there.

I want to add my voice. My voice will be one of hope, inclusion, and welcome.

I’m marching so I can share what I have learned over 58 years of being a woman, and a pastor, mother, wife, sister, daughter, and an American.

I’m marching my faith.

I want to be involved in what is going on in our country.

I want my voice to be heard. I want to show up, speak up, and share what I believe in.

I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with vast numbers of diverse people across the country and reflect on what it means to love all of my neighbors.

I want to join young and old women of every age, color and ability to declare that every woman deserves to be treated with respect.

I want to march with gay, straight, and trans women and say what is true – each one of us is created in God’s image.

I am not a political activist. I have never done anything like this before.

But I am expending a great deal of time, effort, and resources to ensure that my voice joins thousands of others. Together we will encourage each other to stand up for dignity, equality, and an eager openness to learn about one another.

I am marching a message of love.

I am marching a message of hope.

I am marching a promise never to give up.

I am marching so all people can be included in our nation’s history.

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That’s why I’m marching.

I’ll let you know what I experience.

Beyond our borders

What happens when we only want to be with “our kind”?  I shudder when I see this poster advertising a Klan rally in my idyllic, peaceful town.  The poster clearly defines who was being addressed –  all “White, Gentile, Protestants” were invited.  That leaves a long list of folks who were not welcome at this gathering. This group of people who only wanted to meet with “their kind.”

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1926 was a long time ago.  I have never seen a poster overtly encouraging segregation or advertising hatred. But you don’t have to look too far on Facebook or other social media to discover hate-filled messages and hurtful words.  There are many ways to communicate who is welcome in “our” circle and who is not.

This month our church is studying stories from Genesis. The Tower of Babel is described as a monument to self-preservation. God had told new his creation to go out, scatter far and wide, be fruitful and multiply.  And what did they do?  They “settled down.”  They stayed in one place. Instead of adapting a spirit of adventure and a curiosity to discover God’s diverse creation, the people hunkered down.

It turns out that being sedentary is not only bad for our health, it is bad for our spirits. Instead of expanding their horizons, the people stuck close to home with others who looked like them and talked like them. They didn’t want to be explore. They resisted change. They feared what (and who) might be “out there.” They celebrated their safety by building an enormous city complete with a tower symbolizing their self-absorbed complacency.

God put an end to all that.  God broke down the city walls and destroyed their tower.  The people were sent out to confront the challenges of different languages, races, and cultures. God’s people had to fulfill their destiny to “scatter throughout the earth.”

That ancient story comes to mind as I listen to candidates urging us to build a wall to protect our multi-cultural, complex, interracial nation. This story haunts me when I find myself avoiding people with opinions, lifestyles, and and customs different from my own. We are not called to a life of relaxed self-satisfaction. We are invited (and sometimes even not too gently nudged) beyond our comfort zones to places of encounter and learning and exploration.

All of God’s people are our kind of people. We become more complete not when we limit our interactions but instead when we dare to listen to and learn from each other.

 

Can we talk?

The banner hanging on the “welcome shack” at the entrance of our state church summer camp, Silver Lake, stated “Black Lives Matter.” During a weekend when several different groups were holding events at the camp, someone took a marker to the banner and wrote “All Lives Matter.”

Which is right?  Does saying that “Black lives matter” negate other lives or somehow make other lives less valuable?

Our Conference Minister, the Rev. Kent Siladi, wrote a compassionate letter  addressed to all Christians in the Connecticut Conference. He stated, “We have had spirited arguments with friends and colleagues who fervently believe that “All” lives matter, and that to single out some lives seems to diminish the worthiness of others. We disagree with that analysis, although we welcome the conversation about this.”

The conversation is not easy. After the camp banner was defaced, someone asked me, “Why is this wrong?  Don’t all lives matter?  Isn’t that what the banner should say – that God loves all of us?”

Asking questions may be the first part of this important conversation.  But then we need to be prepared to listen to a variety of opinions.  Are we willing to take that risk? Can we engage in conversation with each other?  Can we really listen to one another?

My answer to those questions would be – Of course God loves all people and all lives. Our congregation celebrates that in worship every Sunday when I announce the Good News that “God loved the world – and every single person in it so much – that God gave his only Son, Jesus.”

If we had enough banners, we could list all the people who matter – that would be everyone. But sometimes it is necessary to lift up individual stories and listen to the particular accounts of people who have suffered along the journey toward equality and justice. “All Lives” can learn from these sometimes hidden histories of pain and struggle. In order to engage in conversation, we need to be attentive to voices that are too often silenced.  We need to listen to Blacks, women, immigrants, Native Americans, Jews, lesbians, gays, and transgender – anyone who has experienced life on the margins of society. Each story is precious and can’t be contained under the sweeping label of “all.” These individual experiences need to be heard.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary to emphasize that Black lives matter – it would be obvious. In a perfect world, every race, color, gender, and culture would be honored and treated equally. But this isn’t a perfect world.

The banner at the camp welcome shack was an attempt to announce to everyone – but perhaps especially to people of color – that in this place, we will be intentional about our hospitality. In this place we will endeavor to do what too often is not done – we will treat everyone with the respect they deserve as a beloved child of God. It’s important to say it out loud – to put up a banner announcing it – because throughout history that respect has not always been given. That continues to be the case too often even today.

It’s too easy to say, “All lives matter.” Instead, we are invited to lift up those lives that have been excluded, hurt, and dismissed. We need to have this conversation – over and over again.

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Bibbidi Boddidi… Black

A recent vacation took me to Orlando. While I was ambling down the pedestrian street of Disney Springs (a collection of shops circling a lake), I came across the Bibbidi Boddidi Boutique, a magical salon where little girls can be pampered and styled into their favorite Disney princess.  Hair can be gathered up into a bun, decorated with ribbons, and sprinkled with “pixie dust.”  Extensions can be woven into a glorious ponytail or allowed cascade down to resemble the flowing locks of Rapunzel, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty or Belle. I have to admit, these little girls were adorable as they twirled and giggled their way along the paths. With the flick of a magic wand, or at least with lots of hair product, they had been transformed into the adventurous, (if often beleaguered), yet ultimately always successful princesses.

But it made me wonder – what’s it like to be a black or Hispanic little girl in the magic kingdom? Maybe the “fairy godmothers in training” (stylists) are prepared to welcome girls with every type and texture of hair. But my initial impression was that only certain girls need apply. The bright pink walls are filled with lily-white examples of female glory, from Snow White to Frozen’s Anna and Elsa.  There is a single African-American leading character – Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009).  Could you have named her?  She came on the scene long after my own children were captivated by Disney films so I had to do a bit of research.

What is the image of beauty that a dark-skinned little girl receives when light-skinned heroines are the only ones in sight?

I don’t think Disney is overtly or intentionally racist. Instead, I think that the long line-up of white princesses simply reflects the values and attitudes of a company started in the 1920’s.

Disney has some catching up to do.

I think most of us do.

It makes me wonder what messages churches (and schools, camps, youth organizations, anyone working with young people) send about who is beautiful or powerful or important. Who gets to dream of wishes coming true or a future that includes “happily ever after”?

When churches assure people “everyone is welcome,” how do we get that message across? How are we reaching out to the wide spectrum of individuals who are all part of God’s creation? Who are we leaving out or overlooking or forgetting?

At the start of  racial justice training sessions offered by my denomination, we always read this passage: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27).

We are invited to celebrate the inclusive Spirit of a loving God so we can live together as people created in God’s image .

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